The Freedom of Don Juan

A Conversation with Carlos Castañeda

by Graciela Corvalan (translation from Spanish by Alina Rivero)

About 20 years ago, Graciela Corvalan, a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, had the good fortune to interview the legendary Carlos Castaneda. (Just how she was chosen for this privilege by the enigmatic Castaneda is revealed in the following pages.) The reader may be wondering why Seeds of Unfolding is republishing this "vintage" interview when updated information on Castaneda is readily available on the internet as well as through many other sources. The editors of Seeds believe that the interview is a worthwhile read, still fresh in its message, and that it offers compelling testimony on an alternative life choice. Yet we also acknowledge that this belief, by itself, is not the only reason for choosing to republish. The truth is that the interview sheds light on one person's quest to follow his road and pursue his destiny perfectly. Until the end. Such commitment is rare in these days of many choices. Castaneda's words are provocative in the measure they can still affect us and make us re-examine our lives. Castaneda walked his road; are we walking ours?

Below are the original introduction and conversation, reprinted from Seeds of Unfolding, Vol.1, No. 4, 1983.

I wrote to Carlos Castaneda in connection with a series of interviews I am preparing with contemporary mystical thinkers in the Americas. He telephoned me in Saint Louis and we agreed that I would call him when I was in California in the summer. I contacted him later, as planned, and it was arranged that three friends and I would meet with him in Los Angeles.

The directions Castaneda gave us over the phone led us to the UCLA parking lot entrance. At exactly 4 p.m., the time specified by Castaneda, a short, dark-haired man wearing blue jeans and a cream-colored jacket walked toward us. It couldn't have been anyone but Carlos Castaneda.

My friends had planned to leave me working with him, and to come later to pick me up. But he asked them to stay. He wanted to be with all of us as friends, rather than to do an interview with a professional writer.

From the beginning it was clear that Castaneda wanted to talk about the work he had been doing for the last year. He ignored many of the questions we asked him, mocking, mimicking and indulging in humorous histrionics throughout. In spite of his infectious good spirits and entertaining anecdotes, there was little casual or careless conversation. Castaneda wanted to produce a specific impression and make us realize the seriousness of the work he was doing.

He did not choose a comparative framework for discussion, even though he has read much and is thoroughly familiar with other traditions. Since Toltec teachings have been transmitted only by way of concrete images, which prevent their interpretation on a more abstract, speculative level, Carlos Castaneda used anecdotes and stories to exemplify his work. He remained faithful to his teachers and to the Toltec tradition.

He contends he is neither charlatan nor guru. True, the road he has chosen requires constant training and rigorous exercises which few people can endure. But it is a road, he believes, that offers a real possibility for those who have an unbending desire to be free.

Q. For some time we have not heard much from Carlos Castaneda. Where has he been? What has he been up to?
A. I had a task to complete and a responsibility I could not refuse. That's what I've been doing for the last year. Don Genaro and don Juan are no longer with us. It is the Toltec Woman who directs us. She sent la Gorda and me out to work. I took the name Jose Luis Cordoba, but everyone knew me as Joe Cordoba. La Gorda worked with me that whole year, and for more than a year we posed as Joe Cordoba and his wife.

We found work at a truck stop, and I had to start at 5 a.m. every morning. La Gorda worked long hours too. At the end of the year, the Toltec Woman told us it was time to move on. We had been such good employees the boss didn't want to let us go - the truth is we worked very hard. Day and night.

At one time la Gorda and I found employment as a maid and butler. We ended up being kicked out without pay and worse - in order to protect themselves in case we should protest - they called the police. We landed in jail for nothing at all.

You know, now I really am Joe Cordoba, and this is quite wonderful because I can't fall any lower. This is all I am.

Q. What did you learn from this task?

A. The Toltec Woman teaches us through situations. The best way to learn, I think, is to put ourselves in situations where we can discover we are nothing. The other path is that of personal pride. If we follow it, we spend our lives trying to figure out if someone will love us or not. According to the Toltec Woman, the best way is to begin by knowing that it doesn't matter.

Once we were visiting a friend when some journalists from the New York Times came looking for Carlos Castaneda. La Gorda and I began to work in my friend's garden. We watched the newspeople go in and talk with my friend. When he came out to the garden, he yelled at us and insulted us in front of the newspeople. You see, he could yell out his heart's content at Joe Cordoba and his wife. Nobody tried to defend us. Who were we? Nobodies. Like so many other laborers-animals working under the hot sun.

The task taught us how to withstand hardship and the emotional impact of discrimination. Don Juan saw pride as a monster with 3,000 heads. No matter how many heads you cut off, there are always hundreds of others. We humans like to trick ourselves into believing we really are someone, something. The important thing is not to react. If you react, you are lost. You can't be offended at the tiger when it attacks you; you just step aside and let it pass.

Q. Some people who know you claim you work at your writing as laboriously as any serious novelist, sometimes 16 to 18 hours a day. Is working that hard part of your task?

A. I don't work at all. I simply copy the page that I see in my dreams. One doesn't create out of nothingness. It's absurd to think one can. My father once decided to be a great writer. He fixed up his study to correspond to a great writer's study. When the room had been completely remodeled, he set about to find the perfect desk for his perfect room. When he found the desk, he spent a lot of time finding the right chair to go with it. As he sat down to write, he discovered he had forgotten to purchase a proper cover for the desk top. Once he finally sat down and faced the blank page, he had no idea what to write about. That was my father.

He wanted to write the perfect sentence. He did not understand that we are only intermediaries. I see each page in my dreams. The measure of success of that page has to do with my ability to reproduce it faithfully. Creation is never a personal task.

Q. If don Juan is real, then, who is he?

A. He is a free man, whose spirit thirsts for freedom. He is a totality, an incredible presence; he is present as a whole in each moment we call "now." Don Juan is free from our basic perceptual prejudices. He can see. To give everything now is his way, his rule. There is no real explanation for this. It just is this way.

What is wonderful about don Juan is that, though ordinary people perceive him as being totally crazy, no one can perceive him as he really is. In this world, don Juan is impeccable and he knows how to go about unperceived. He offers the world a transient image -for an hour, a month, 60 years. No one could ever catch him unaware! He always knew that this world is only for a moment and that what comes afterwards. That's beautiful! Don Juan and don Genaro loved beauty intensely!

Don Juan's idea of time is very different from ours. That is probably why he could wait for Carlos Castaneda. What he taught me was that everything is transient. He tore through my perceptual prejudices until my whole system was shattered.

Q. You have spent a great deal of your time trying to "erase your past." Yet you have given interviews from time to time to promote your books. How do you reconcile your roles of writer and sorcerer's apprentice? When do you choose to communicate with the outside world and why?

A. Don Juan gave me the task of recording a tradition. He was the one who insisted I give conferences and interviews. He wanted me to promote the books. Afterwards he told me I had to stop because that kind of work was taking too much energy.

I have a friend in Los Angeles who gets all my mail. Whenever I come, I put all the mail in a box, swirl it around and pick out one letter. This is the only one I read and answer. It is the only one I should answer. In your case, I pulled your letter out. I had trouble finding you, but I had to. The Toltec Woman knew it, too.

Q. You have written about being a particularly difficult student of sorcery. Why did you have so much trouble?

A. I was very, very stubborn. I didn't want to learn. I fought the teaching and that is why don Juan had to use drugs with me. That's also why my liver's in shreds.

Don Juan had to trick me into learning. I had to teach my body new sensations so that it would learn in spite of me. La Gorda's body learned very quickly. No one who met la Gorda before can believe she is the same woman today. When I met her, she was an enormously fat woman, heavy and beaten by life. Now she is young, full of life and very attractive.

Q. You have mentioned the Toltecs often. What do you mean by the Toltecs? Are they a nation or a secret society? How many are there? Who are they?

A. The word "Toltec" has many meanings. One can speak of a Toltec in the same way one can say someone is a Democrat or a Republican. The word itself has no anthropological connotations. To be a Toltec means to know the mysteries of dreaming and the art of stalking. The Toltecs are those who keep alive a 5,000 year-old tradition.

Q. What is the Toltec system of knowledge?

A. Toltecs know that the idea of free will is absurd. A Toltec understands that common sense deceives us, that ordinary perception shows us only a fraction of the truth. There has to be more to life than just passing through, eating, and reproducing ourselves. So what does it all mean? Why do we live in routines? These are old questions, but the problem is we have never learned to see. We are conditioned to believe that everyday perception is the only real perception. The art of the sorcerer is to destroy this perceptual prejudice so that one can see past common sense.

Toltecs cannot waste time. I was one of those people who could not get along without friends. I couldn't even go to the movies by myself. Don Juan told me I would have to leave everything behind, including those friends with whom I had nothing in common. I resisted this.

One day, however, coming back to Los Angeles, I got out of the car a block away from home and made a telephone call. As usual, my house was full of people. I asked one of my friends to pack my bag and bring it to me. I told him he could divide the rest of my stuff among the group. They didn't pay attention to me, naturally, and took things thinking they were only borrowed. I didn't see them again for 12 years.

When I went back, I called them all and we got together for dinner. This was my way of thanking them for their friendship. Now they are all married and have children. But I had to thank them and close that phase of my life.

Toltecs find sex a terrible waste of time and energy. They lead an ascetic life which, from the world's point of view, is unacceptable and incredible.

Q. Do the Toltecs believe in the concept of love, earthly or divine?

A. I object to the sentimental overtones of that word. Romantic love is another of man's illusions. Life is war. Peace is an anomaly. Pacifism is a monstrous notion because human beings are beings of struggle.

Q. How can you say that the effort to save life is monstrous? What would you say to people like Gandhi who believe so strongly in pacifism?

A. Gandhi was never a pacifist! He was one of the greatest warriors in the history of mankind. What a warrior he was! Pacifism means giving up; pacifism is the attitude of those who have no goals in life, who choose to be complacent and hedonistic.

Without enemies, we are nothing. Having an enemy, living with the knowledge of adversity, is part of our human form. We have to free ourselves from this human form, but that takes time. At first we are beings who struggle. This is our first level, what don Juan calls the good "tonal" in a person. The tonal is like the raw material in each person.

Q. What is the purpose of life, then, according to the Toltecs?

A. To get out of this world alive, past the fearsome eagle, whole. This is the way of the sorcerers: to leave with everything one is and only with what one is.

For the rest of this interview, click here.